Anyone who’s seen my closet knows I have way too many clothes. However, when it comes to packing for my trips, I have an uncanny ability to fit my life in a backpack that meets every budget airline’s carry on size requirements. I love packing light because it makes traveling between cities so much easier, and it’s easier on my back, too! Here are our top 10 tips for packing light.
1. Get the right backpack
Before we even start packing, the first step to packing light is to have the right backpack. You want a backpack that is compact and easily accessible. I have the Minaal 1.0 (a slightly older version of the 2.0 bag on the market right now), and it meets the requirements for a carry on bag for even the smallest, cheapest airlines, such as Ryanair or Spirit, which fly tiny planes with very little storage and typically charge its customers extra for checked bags.
The Minaal bag also allows me to reach all my items easily, without having to take out all the contents of my bag in order to find the one shirt I’m looking for. The bag unzips all the way around, so you can open it up like a suitcase. This allows me to see all the contents of my bag, easily take out what I need, and zip it back up without creating a mess and having to re-pack everything.
I use the interior zippered pockets for smaller garments, and I pack the rest into packing cubes or a daypack. Packing cubes help me stay even more organized with my clothing, which makes repacking my backpack even easier. A couple of solid options for packing cubes are the Eagle Creek Pack It Specter Cube and the Sea to Summit Travelling Light Garment Mesh Bag, both of which you can find on Amazon.
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2. Bring versatile, low-maintenance clothing
For most people, the contents of your bag will consist mainly of clothes. Thus, finding a way to pack as little clothes as possible is a key component to packing light. There is never any reason to pack for more than 7 days, even if you will be on the road for a month or more. You can easily wash your clothes by hand at almost any accommodation you may choose to stay at, even if there are no washers/dryers available. All you have to do is pack a small container of powder laundry detergent (not liquid because you don’t want to take up your liquid allowance), and sprinkle some detergent into your tub or sink when you’re ready to wash your clothes. Another trick I use is to pack some fresh dryer sheets in a ziplock bag and spread the dryer sheets out amongst my clothes after wearing them. This way, my clothes at least smell fresh even if they are actually dirty.
When deciding which clothes to pack, I typically pack only neutral colors (black, white, grey) and make sure all my tops match all my bottoms. This way, rather than packing a bunch of outfits, I know that I have multiple outfits I can wear by mixing and matching different tops with different bottoms on different days. I will typically bring one outfit that’s a little dressier, so I know I have something to wear in case I find myself in a more formal environment. For my day-to-day clothes, my favorites are some neutral tees from Everlane and my DSTLD jeans. Here are a few of my staple pieces for packing light:
- Everlane Box Cut Tee – this is the perfect length for us shorter girls (I’m 5’2″) and is a soft cotton fabric.
- Everlane Drop Shoulder Tee – a very classic tee, also very soft, and the slight slit design on the sides is a nice added touch.
- Everlane Cotton Tank – this is your classic tank, although a bit longer than I’d like (again, I am on the shorter side), so I typically wear it tied up or tucked in.
- Everlane Ryan Long Sleeve – I usually stow this away in my bag and put it on over whatever I’m wearing if it gets a bit chilly. It’s very thin, so it folds up very small and you can stuff it right into your daypack.
- Everlane Street Fleece Pant – this feels like a sweatpant but can be dressed up to look much more put together. It is a bit thicker, though, so I’d recommend it only for cooler temperatures.
- DSTLD High-Waisted Skinny Jean – these fit like $300 jeans but with a lot more stretch, and they are only $75! I have the black ones, which easily pair with just about anything.
- DSTLD High-Waisted Shorts – these are the same fabric as the skinny jeans, and they’re a steal at only $35! These are pretty short, though, so I would consider bringing a longer pair depending on where you are traveling.
- American Apparel High-Waist Jean Cutoff Short – I am all about the high-waisted bottoms + cropped top look, so as an alternative to the DSTLD shorts, I will sometimes pack a pair of these American Apparel shorts.
- Steve Madden Troopas – these are the most comfortable boots I have ever owned, and they are so versatile. I have worn them out to the bars at night as well as on hikes during the day, and they go with everything.
- Vans Classic Slip On Skate Shoe – these are the most comfortable shoes and match everything. The only downside is the white shoes get dirty easily, but between these and my Troopas, I really can’t foresee any situation where I’d need any other shoes.
As for fabric, I personally love cotton, but cotton is not a good space-saving fabric, nor is it a quick-drying fabric. Most would agree that the most versatile and low-maintenance fabric to travel with is merino wool. A few benefits of merino wool are that it is breathable, keeps you cool in the heat and warm in the cold, does not wrinkle easily, is odor- and stain-resistant, and is very soft and comfortable to wear. I am not recommending that you go out and buy an entirely new merino wool wardrobe (I sure haven’t yet), but at a minimum, I would recommend getting some merino wool socks, as you will be able to get pretty far with just a couple of pairs. SmartWool and Icebreaker are two popular brands for merino wool products.
3. Pack a micro-fiber towel
A micro-fiber towel comes in handy if you’re staying at a hostel or other accommodation that does not provide you with a towel to shower with, but it is good for so much more than just that. Because micro-fiber towels are quick drying, you won’t have to worry about stuffing a wet towel into your backpack and getting all the other contents wet. You can also wrap a dry micro-fiber towel around wet or damp clothes so that your clothes dry faster, and you protect the rest of the contents of your backpack from being affected by your wet clothes. Several times I have packed a damp shirt in my micro-fiber towel, traveled to a new city, and when I opened my bag again, my shirt was dry.
Most micro-fiber towels are also very thin and roll up to barely take any space. I have had the Shandali Micro-fiber Towel towel for over three years and have brought it with me on multiple trips, and I have had no complaints.
4. Roll your clothes
Rolling your clothes instead of folding them saves space, so if you’re finding yourself having a hard time fitting all your clothes into your bag, try rolling them instead. An added bonus to rolling your clothes is that it also helps reduce wrinkles.
5. Wear your layers
If you need to bring thicker layers or coats, try to wear them instead of pack them. You can always take off the layers and store them in the overhead compartment as soon as you get on the plane if you do not want to wear bulky layers during your flight.
6. Pack a foldable daypack
One problem with traveling with only a backpack is that once you get to your destination, settle into your hotel, and want to go out exploring, you don’t have anything to carry your daily belongings with you, such as your phone, wallet, keys, etc. This is where a foldable daypack comes in handy. It is small, lightweight, and hardly takes up any space inside your backpack. Or, if you’re like me, you can even clip it to the outside of your backpack with a carabiner clip, so it takes up no space inside your backpack.
My favorite foldable daypack is the NeatPack Foldable Backpack, a lightweight, water resistant backpack that folds up into a small pouch that I clip to the outside of my backpack when I travel. It has a mesh back, which provides added comfort and helps keep me dry on long hikes or hot days. It also has a secret zipper pocket at the bottom of the backpack, where you can hide valuables such as cash, passport, etc., or simply use to store your dirty laundry or sandals for the beach. You can buy it on Amazon and use code MVM10OFF for a 10% discount.
7. Consolidate camera components
If you are like me, and a lot of other travelers, you have at some point struggled with dilemma of wanting to bring your DSLR camera with you on your trip but not being able to come to terms with filling half your backpack with just camera equipment. Lucky for us, I recently discovered these neoprene sleeves, which keep my camera and lenses protected but greatly reduces the bulk. I have since ditched my bulky camera bag and simply wrap my camera and lenses in neoprene sleeves and throw them into my backpack. Even better, you can get a set of sleeves for your camera and three lenses for less than $20 USD.
8. Carabiner clips
One of the most useful additions to my backpack are my black carabiner clips, which I use to hold my water bottle, jackets, foldable daypack, or any extra bulky item that the carabiner can clip on to. I have the Bluecell carabiner clips, which unfortunately have been discontinued, but you can find similar ones here. I bought a pack of five carabiner clips about five years ago, and I haven’t had a single one break yet. I always clip a couple onto my backpack before I leave, since I never know when I’ll need one.
9. Ditch the liquids
The best way to preserve your liquids allotment is to bring shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in the form of bar soap. Not only are you helping to ensure that you do not exceed your liquids allotment, you are also preventing a potential spill in your bag. I’ve also found that a standard size bar soap will go much farther than a 3 oz. bottle of the same product in liquid form. Here are a list of my favorite hair and body products in bar soap form:
- Peppermint Shampoo Bar Soap (Sulfate Free, Natural & Organic Ingredients): I love this one because of its organic ingredients. Traveling can be damaging enough on your hair that you don’t need harsh chemicals damaging it even more.
- J.R. Liggett’s Old Fashioned Shampoo Bar: This shampoo also contains all natural ingredients – good for your hair and good for the earth.
- Honey Silk Hair Conditioner Bar for Shiny Hair: Made with 100% natural ingredients and lasts forever.
- Très Spa Conditioning Shampoo: Also made with all natural ingredients, this shampoo has conditioning elements built in, which is perfect if you don’t want to bring a separate shampoo and conditioner bar.
- Neem Soap Bar: I love this soap bar because the ingredients are so gentle that you can use it as face wash as well.
- iNeibo Silicone Travel Containers: If you MUST bring your hair and body wash products in liquid form, this is the best liquids container I’ve found.
10. Go au naturel
This tip is mostly for the ladies, but I’ve noticed that since I started traveling, I’ve greatly reduced, if not eliminated, my makeup routine. It really is a hassle when you’re staying in dorm-style hostels to apply loads of makeup every morning, so I cut my makeup routine and noticed that not only am I able to get ready in the mornings in a fraction of the time it used to take, but that I was actually a lot more relaxed throughout the day. I no longer need to constantly check to see if my makeup is still on properly or if it has been smudged all over my face from the rain. I am also able to save a lot of space in my toiletries bag by cutting down on makeup.
To keep my toiletries organized, I use the Sea to Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag, which is on the small size for toiletry bags, but fits everything I need. My favorite thing about this toiletry bag is that it has a clip hidden on the inside of the bag that allows you to hang the bag on the back of a door or anywhere with a hook, making the contents of your bag easily accessible to you while you are getting ready in the morning.
Our top 10 tips for packing light is designed to help you have a more relaxed and enjoyable journey when you travel. Have we missed any tips? Let us know in the comments below.
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Hi, I’m Diana, the big sister in the sister duo. I left my job as an attorney in March 2017 to pursue the work-from-anywhere/travel-everywhere life aka The Dream. I blog about off the beaten trail travel destinations, adventure travel, immersing in local cultures, and publish plenty of travel guides for all you who are too lazy to plan your own trips. I’ve traveled to 53 countries to date, and some of my recent adventures include hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, visiting a child I’ve sponsored for over 10 years in Rwanda, and exploring the Middle East.